You know that saying “For want of a nail”? Well, in Easie Damasco’s case, it was for want of a piece of bread, a chunk of fish and some cabbage that the fate of the entire land of Castoval was changed. When Easie is caught pilfering food from the baggage train of the invading warlord Moaradrid’s army, he is summarily pressed into service and assigned to a unit that’s ominously referred to as the “disposables.” Easie has no interest in becoming cannon fodder, and he sort of likes his home land the way it is, sans invading warlords, so he immediately plans to escape.
His ticket out of this predicament proves to be Saltlick, one of the terrifying giants in Moaradrid’s army. The thing is, Easie doesn’t just steal the giant — he also steals a money bag that, without his knowledge, contains the item that allows Moaradrid to control his contingent of giants. This unwitting theft sets off a long chase that will change the face of the Castoval forever…
Easie Damasco, the main character of David Tallerman’s debut novel Giant Thief, is an opportunistic thief whose only real interest is his own enrichment and well-being. He’s not above grandstanding, yelling taunts at opponents as he escapes, or abandoning his companions to their fates to save himself. In other words, he’s a bit of a jerk. Readers who prefer novels with likable main characters may want to look elsewhere.
Still, if you look a little closer, Easie occasionally shows a different side throughout the novel — it’s just that it gets overshadowed by his selfishness most of the time. He shows compassion towards the horses, people and, well, giant he takes advantage of. Sometimes he even feels guilty about what he does, although he usually manages to rationalize that guilt away. Throughout the novel, you get an inside look at what goes on inside his head: the internal struggle between his natural urge to be a selfish git on the one hand, and his conscience (such as it is) on the other. Most of the time, especially early on in the novel, he picks whichever path is the most lucrative for him — I’ll become a soldier because it beats being hanged, I’ll learn to handle a giant because it may help me escape being a soldier — but eventually he somehow stumbles his way towards a motivation that’s bigger than just his own personal gain. He’s not above cherry-picking some private gain along the way, though.
Some of the other characters in Giant Thief are much more likable. Marina Estrada is the mayor of Muena Palaiya, a town in the Castoval that the warlord Moaradrid has in his sights. Her ferocious competence is balanced by a softer side that usually remains carefully hidden but occasionally bubbles to the surface. Lunto Alvantes, the City Guard captain who is also known as the Hammer of Altapasaeda, is an honorable lawman and a fearsome warrior. He also happens to want Easie’s head on a pike for past transgressions.
Giant Thief would have been an entirely different novel, had it been told from the perspective of these two characters, because their heroic story of desperate resistance against an invading army is quite different from Easie’s. Their motives involve more than just their own advancement. They don’t consider themselves the center of the universe. As it is though, we see everything through the eyes of Easie Damasco, who accidentally — and against his will — wanders into the center of a larger struggle: he performs the fantasy equivalent of stealing a battle tank at the start of the novel and then spends the rest of it trying to avoid the consequences while still making a profit. All throughout his antics, there’s a different fantasy novel that’s happening simultaneously, in which Easie is just a not-so-innocent passer-by whose initial act of (let’s be honest) colossal stupidity ends up being of utmost importance for the larger story of the Castoval.
Nevertheless, Giant Thief is Easie’s show, and he’s an entertaining protagonist. His occasional habit of overstating his own importance to try and weasel his way out of tight spots is reminiscent of famous fantasy rogues like Jack Vance’s Cugel the Clever or, more recently, Rachel Aaron’s Eli Monpress. In this brief scene from the very first chapter, Easie has just been caught stealing food from the army. His captors drag him in front of a guard who will decide his fate, but Easie interrupts before they can mention anything about his attempted theft:
At the edge of the camp – an arbitrary distinction given how unruly it was – we were stopped by a guard, a plainsman with his hair slung in a single braid over one shoulder.
“Where are you headed?” he asked, without interest.
“These men,” I said quickly, “are mercenaries of the cheaper sort. I am a volunteer, come to serve Moaradrid with my youthful vigour and courage.”
“But not with your sword?” he asked, looking at my empty belt.
“It was stolen by bandits,” I told him sadly. “I killed nearly a dozen, then thought it prudent to leave unarmed but intact. I’m sure someone will be good enough to loan me a new one.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
He waved over a colleague, who was lounging nearby against a post.
“Take him to the disposables,” he ordered, pointing at me.
A word of warning, though: the reference to Jack Vance may lead you to expect a more unique setting than you’ll find here. Giant Thief is entertaining enough, but it’s not terribly original. The fantasy universe is perfectly adequate for the story, but more than a little on the cookie-cutter side. Likewise, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the characters, but they are somewhat recognizable. There’s no getting around the fact that, in the end, Giant Thief consists of elements you’ve probably seen before. Thanks to the way David Tallerman puts them all together, the end result is a very entertaining adventure, but originality is not its strength.
When all’s said and done, I still give Giant Thief positive marks, because it’s a fun story told at a breakneck hectic pace that doesn’t let up until the very end. It’s Grand Theft Giant, with the selfish rogue who car-jacks a giant as the first person narrator. He’s repeatedly forced to choose between (in his own words) “the best of a bad bunch of options” and almost always picks the one that’s best for him, even though those choices affect the well-being or even survival of his companions, not to mention the fate of the Castoval. The best part of the novel is watching Easie’s evolution as he realizes that the consequences of his choices affect others in increasingly important ways. That internal struggle, as he attempts to force down the voice of his tiny, atrophied conscience telling him to do the right thing, makes Giant Thief more than just a hectic adventure story — but the biggest positive factor is still the breathless pace of what’s essentially a chase scene in the shape of a fantasy novel.
Giant Thief is surprisingly straightforward for an Angry Robot novel. No dark edges, no genre-bending, just a plain old, fun fantasy story — the kind that almost begs for a map. (I guess we’re in an age where fantasy novels aren’t supposed to need maps, but goodness, my fingers were itching to turn to the front of the book and check for one all through this novel.) If you’re in the mood for something fast-paced and entertaining, not too challenging but instead light and, well, simply fun, Giant Thief is a great choice. It doesn’t have Guy Gavriel Kay’s deep characterization of Catherynne M. Valente’s gorgeous prose, and it isn’t going to change the face of fantasy, but I enjoyed Giant Thief for what it is and look forward to the continued adventures of Easie Damasco.
This review was originally written for Tor.com, and appeared there on January 31st, 2012.